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What We’re Watching: Iran nuke talks resume, Myanmar massacres civilians, Ukraine laughs it all off, Taliban confusion continues, Kashmir gerrymandering

Iran nuclear talks are back on. After a brief holiday break, negotiations to end Iran's nuclear program in exchange for removing economic sanctions against Tehran resume on Monday in Vienna. What are the prospects? About as dim as the last time we wrote about this. Western powers say time is running out because the Iranians are slow-walking the talks so they can continue to enrich uranium well beyond the limits in the original agreement, while the Iranians are playing hardball by demanding that all sanctions be lifted first. Iran also wants a guarantee that the US won't ditch a new deal the way Donald Trump did with the old one in 2018. If Iran keeps enriching uranium at the current pace, the current terms being discussed could soon be obsolete. However, should the talks fail in the end, the US says it has military options to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb.

Massacre of civilians in Myanmar. Myanmar experienced its worst single case of state-sponsored violence since the February coup on Christmas Eve, when the army gunned down more than 30 civilians — including women and children — and torched their vehicles in Kayah state. Several people are still missing, including two aid workers from Save the Children. It's unclear what prompted the attack, but it took place amid heavy fighting between the military and armed resistance groups in the area. Two weeks ago, soldiers had 11 civilians burned alive because they were suspected of belonging to an anti-junta guerrilla army. Both massacres show that the generals are not backing down in their campaign to wipe out those who oppose their takeover, which ended Myanmar's brief experiment with democracy after decades of military rule. The fighting has also recently intensified along the border with Thailand, whose hardline PM is one of the junta's few foreign friends but doesn't want a refugee crisis on his doorstep (and has already sent back thousands of migrants).

Ukraine's comedian cabinet. As Russia threatens to invade, Ukraine's president is looking to defend his homeland... with a bit of humor. In recent months Volodymyr Zelenskiy — who was a famous comedian before he entered politics, and even played the role of president in a TV series before his 2019 election — has hired members of his old comedy troupe to occupy top positions in his government, including intelligence chief. Zelenskiy is known to crack jokes in moments of extreme tension, and last summer mocked Vladimir Putin for writing a long essay describing Russia and Ukraine as a fraternal single nation. While supporters say Ukraine's president wants his former buddies because they'll be loyal, critics argue that the bad optics of a government being run by comedians who may be out of their depth when faced with a master political strategist like Vladimir Putin. With 100,000 Russian troops at their border, the last thing the Ukrainians need is a bad joke, or even worse an amateur mistake that Putin can use to his advantage.

Will the real Taliban please stand up? The Taliban seem to be adopting a classic one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach to governance. Last week, at a conference attended by dozens of foreign ministers from across the Islamic world, their top diplomat claimed that all government departments had resumed operations. But on Sunday, the new rulers of Afghanistan announced the shutdown of the main election commissions and the ministries of parliamentary affairs and peace, calling them “unnecessary.” Confusion ensues: evacuee flights have been stalled, but the passport office has been reopened. In addition, every day turns up new bizarre and oppressive regulations, such as women not being allowed to travel alone over 45 miles in a cab, which must be driven by a driver with a beard. And there is evidence that the Taliban continue to both attract jihadists and threaten regional peace. At the same time, they are also engaging officially with Iran, despite their anti-Shia stance, and have even set up a WhatsApp hotline to fight pollution. Which Taliban are running Afghanistan? Are they at all?

India (further) dividing Kashmir. You've probably heard about Democrats and Republicans tweaking US congressional districts to ensure easy wins, yet make the electoral map overall less competitive. Now India is doing something similar to favor Hindus over Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir, a region long disputed with Pakistan. Majority-Muslim Kashmir — besides being the title of Led Zeppelin’s third greatest song — is bigger, has more natural resources, and has been the center of much of the decades-old insurgency against Delhi. But smaller Jammu has a slim Hindu majority, which PM Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government wants to give more parliamentary power than their official population merits by redrawing electoral maps. This has triggered a new communal divide in a historically tense area, which two years ago was stripped of its autonomy by Modi. Since then Kashmir has “welcomed” over half a million Indian troops and imprisoned more politicians than ever before, but gerrymandering could be a step too far. Even Kashmiri officials who have historically sided with Delhi are speaking against the measures, warning of further unrest if such divisive policies are implemented.

What We're Watching: Kashmir gerrymandering

India (further) dividing Kashmir. You've probably heard about Democrats and Republicans tweaking US congressional districts to ensure easy wins, yet make the electoral map overall less competitive. Now India is doing something similar to favor Hindus over Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir, a region long disputed with Pakistan. Majority-Muslim Kashmir — besides being the title of Led Zeppelin’s third greatest song — is bigger, has more natural resources, and has been the center of much of the decades-old insurgency against Delhi. But smaller Jammu has a slim Hindu majority, which PM Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government wants to give more parliamentary power than their official population merits by redrawing electoral maps. This has triggered a new communal divide in a historically tense area, which two years ago was stripped of its autonomy by Modi. Since then Kashmir has “welcomed” over half a million Indian troops and imprisoned more politicians than ever before, but gerrymandering could be a step too far. Even Kashmiri officials who have historically sided with Delhi are speaking against the measures, warning of further unrest if such divisive policies are implemented.

2021: Groundhog Day in a G-Zero world

Did 2021 actually happen, or are we still stuck in 2020? So many things seem to have barely changed this year. After all, we’re entering yet another holiday season worried about a fresh wave of the pandemic, and uncertain about what comes next for our economies and our politics.

In a lot of ways, the past 365 days feel like a year of unfulfilled promise. Let’s have a look back at what did, and did not happen in 2021.

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What We're Watching: Indian farmers stop protesting, Evergrande on brink of default, Saudi camels get touch-ups

Indian farmers pack up their tents — for now. For over a year, tens of thousands of Indian farmers have been protesting three agriculture laws that they say would give more power to big agribusiness and reduce farmers’ incomes. (The government says they rather aim to streamline an outdated and inefficient sector.) Now, farmers’ unions say they will call off the protests — and shut down the makeshift protest camp they built on the outskirts of Delhi — after PM Narendra Modi agreed to their demands. The farmers want the government to set a minimum price for most farm produce, and withdraw criminal charges for farmers arrested during protests. Modi backing down is a big deal because agriculture is the primary source of income for nearly 60 percent of Indians, and dozens of farmers have been killed in confrontations with police over the past year. Protest leaders will meet with government officials on January 15 to assess the plan’s progress. But if the government doesn’t follow through on its promises, the farmers say they’ll go back to the picket line.

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What We’re Watching: NATO tries to deter Russia, Ethiopia’s war widens, India targets a laughable enemy

NATO looks to deter Russia, but how? With Russia having massed more than 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian frontier, NATO says it’s looking to deter the Kremlin from launching a potential attack. But how? Though both the EU and US back Ukraine economically and militarily, the country isn’t a NATO member – and won’t be soon – so there’s no automatic defense treaty in place. And while NATO’s toolkit includes options from increased defense operations, to cyber attacks on Russian targets, to the threat of retaliatory strikes on Russian forces, it has to play the deterrence game carefully: any consequences that it threatens must be both serious enough to scare Russia and credible. After all, Vladimir Putin loves to call bluffs, and it would be a massive fail for the world’s most powerful military alliance to draw a red line only to watch the Kremlin prove that NATO forces won’t defend it. Lastly, a NATO miscalculation could accidentally provoke the wider conflict everyone wants to avoid.

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What We're Watching: Omicron sparks fear and restrictions, Honduras' elections, Modi plays politics with farmers, EU calls for migrant pact with UK, Kyiv on alert

The omicron wars: Can we really afford to lock down again? In response to the new omicron variant first discovered by South African scientists, many countries have reintroduced pandemic travel restrictions that we thought were long behind us. Israel and Morocco have banned all foreign visitors, while tougher rules on quarantining and travel have also been enforced in the UK, Australia, Singapore and parts of Europe. Meanwhile, travelers from southern African countries have been banned from entering almost everywhere. Scientists say that it is still too early to say how infectious the new variant is, or how resistant it might be to vaccines. This disruption comes just as many economies were starting to reopen after more than 20-months of pandemic closures and chaos. The new restrictions are already triggering a fierce debate: some say that we are now in the endemic stage of the pandemic and that it is both unsustainable – and economically and psychologically harmful – to keep locking down every time a new variant surfaces. Others, like Israel's PM Naftali Bennett, say we are in the throes of a new "state of emergency," and that we can't afford to take any chances. What do you think?

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What We're Watching: Modi plays politics with farmers

Modi plays politics with farmers. The Indian government's recent climbdown on three agricultural laws was a rare concession from Modi, a popular, strong-willed nationalist who came to power in 2014 and has refused to back down on contentious and oft-criticized policy issues – like decimating India's cash money supply, revoking Kashmir's autonomous status, or amending the country's citizenship laws to effectively exclude Muslims. Now, farmers unions seem to smell blood in the water. While many are indeed thrilled that Modi has done away with the farming reforms, which would no longer have guaranteed minimum prices for crops, giving more power to big business, many see this concession as a shrewd political move. Early next year elections will be held in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and an agricultural stronghold which traditionally backs Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party. But the BJP has lost support there in recent months because of the agricultural laws. Still, Modi hasn't won over farmers just yet: farm unions want the government to write certain "minimum support prices" into law, and to expand the number of crops that are given these government price protections. But a law like that won't be popular with powerful agriculture corporations. Will Modi do it anyway?

What We’re Watching: EU vs everyone, Austria vs the unvaccinated, India vs smog, Barbados vs real world

The EU targets "everyone!" The EU on Monday unanimously agreed to impose fresh sanctions on "everyone involved" in bringing migrants to the Belarus-Poland border, where a diplomatic and humanitarian crisis continues as thousands of asylum-seekers shiver in makeshift camps. Brussels says Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has deliberately created this crisis to strike back against existing EU sanctions that were imposed in response to his sham re-election last year and his hijacking of a RyanAir flight this summer. Reports show that Belarus loosened visa restrictions for migrants — largely from Iraq — to serve as a transit point for migrants hoping to cross the EU border to apply for asylum. Details of the new sanctions aren't yet decided, but they are likely to target political officials, travel agencies, and airlines. Lukashenko has vowed to fight back, but he won't cut off the Russian gas flows that traverse his country on the way to Europe — Vladimir Putin quickly slapped down that possibility after Lukashenko raised it over the weekend. The question remains: will EU sanctions change Belarus' behavior?

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